First Night: How an uninvited guest split Bennett's life in two

The Lady In The Van Queen's Theatre London
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The Independent Online
YOU'VE HEARD of the Two Ronnies? Now meet the Two Alans. In The Lady In The Van, Alan Bennett's frequently hilarious autobiographical new play, the dramatist's divided feelings about everything are symbolised by having him impersonated by a pair of actors simultaneously in a sort of Morecambe and Morecambe routine. Alan I (played by Kevin McNally) is the detached, observant professional writer, exploiting his life and the people in it for material; Alan II (Nicholas Farrell) is the writhing liberal who has got to go through the dreadful business of living in the first place and who affects to hold his alter ego in contempt.

But it would, you feel, take a battalion of Bennetts to get the better of the title character, Miss Shepherd, the homeless old tramp who lived in a van in the playwright's front driveway for 15 years. This combative, ungrateful, car-mad religious maniac, with her delusions of being at the centre of some international, nay eschatological conspiracy, is played here in a performance of quite brilliant formidability and pathos by Maggie Smith.

Making the Trojan women look like the Beverley Sisters, she resembles, in her ragged, filthy plumage and cap, the regal survivor of some mythic disaster with a strong hint of cunning Mitford eccentric thrown in. But, at moments, both she and the writing give you wonderful glimpses of the underlyingly panic-stricken woman who, through she was dogmatically entrenched in a very immobile mobile home all those years, was for ever on the run from a troubled past. There's a quiet heartbreaking scene where this ex- novice nun reveals how her girlhood gift for the piano was strangled by the clergy. They told her that from abstention "spiritual gifts would accrue" and in the desolate, gradually fraying conviction with which Smith intones the line "And they did, they did, they did", you can almost hear a ghostly echo of Hamlet's "Except my life, except my life, except my life".

Like the woman in the old Weetabix advert who used to sing of the two men in her life, the Two Alans in this play have to juggle the Two Old Ladies in theirs. To guilt at being an autobiographical writer is added the guilt of having an unlettered, hygiene-besotted mother in an old people's home at the same time as having the incontinent Miss Shepherd outside his window and under his affronted nose. Some of this can get a bit schematic, despite the witty ways in which Bennett tries to have his Madeleine cake and eat it by making the schematism something else the Two Alans can worry about. The superb camp of the final sequence, which alas I must not give away, retroactively redeems it all.

I was never reconciled though, to the brightly coloured pop-up book feel of Nicholas Hytner's production which makes Bennett's writer-infested neck of North London look more like Trumpton than what it is - Ramsay Street with added literacy. The play is studded with great comic lines, the saddest being when Bennett asks his disapproving mother whether she'd like to meet Miss S and, slightly crestfallen, she replies "No. With her being educated, I wouldn't know what to say."